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Bar News - July 15, 2011

Chief Justice Nadeau: Tight Budget Forces Us to Find New Ways to Cope

Tina Nadeau
The following are questions and answers from Chief Justice Tina Nadeau from a Bar News interview conducted at the 2011 Annual Meeting.

How much worse is the new budget for superior court operations?

The layoffs and retirements are having a significant effect. For example, in Grafton County, where we should have 10 staff people in the clerkís office processing cases, handling scheduling, and dealing with the public, there are now 4 Ĺ positions filled. That is very challenging.

Eighty percent of our costs are personnel, so that is what gets cut. This is not about money for the courts, it is about providing services for domestic violence victims and for people trying to get transactions done and disputes resolved.

In this current fiscal climate, we donít have many choices. But that doesnít mean we canít take advantage of this crisis and create an opportunity for change. We have to look at case management in ways we havenít before. Because of layoffs, it will take more creativity than ever to get the job done. So far Iíve seen that the staff are up to the task, and for that Iím grateful.

How are you coping with drastic cutbacks like that?

We initially talked about reassigning personnel and decided instead to ask for volunteers to serve on a "SWAT" team that goes around to different parts of the state. We did have volunteers, and we take them out of their regular locations and assignments for a period of a few days or a few weeks to address a situation where a backlog has become particularly onerous. It is not the best of solutions, but it is helping, and it boosts morale.

We still have some clerkís offices closing to the public at certain times so that the staff can concentrate on processing cases. Right now, thatís Rockingham, Merrimack Hillsborough, and Grafton. We are hoping that closing a few afternoons a week will not become permanent.

We are also looking at separating front office [interacting with the public on the phone or at the counter] and back office [case processing functions] to become more efficient. We are trying that in Strafford County. But it takes time too Ė you have to cross-train people so that they take on functions they had not done before. And in some of our smaller courts, it is difficult to see if it can really work.

One thing we are trying to do is make sure that all courts realize that if you are scheduling jury trials, the default is not to only do criminal cases. After you have the trials for incarcerated inmates, see what civil cases can be scheduled. Try to prioritize.

We also are looking to see if there are ways to have counties help each other Ė if a judge in another county can fit in a particularly urgent jury case.

Clerk David Carlson is trying to bring staffs together in Grafton and Coos to operate more as a regional court. Carroll and Belknap will be coming together too under Jim Peale.

I am continually amazed at the dedication of our staff. One employee asked me, "Should I not take my vacation?" I said you certainly should, we canít have people sacrificing their personal lives.

Are there things lawyers can do to help the courts get the work done?

The best thing I can say is, before you call a court, determine whether it is really necessary; is it a true emergency to contact the court.

One thing we have done is extend the number of days to perfect an attachment. Generally when a plaintiff asks to attach property to preserve their ability to collect on a judgment, we give them 30 days to perfect the attachment from the time they filed the request. Unfortunately, if it takes us a while to process the paper work, they may receive it back from us for filing with only days or a week to complete the attachment. If we give them 60 days to perfect the attachment, then our backlog will not adversely affect the plaintiff.

What is the status of the plan to consolidate the two districts of Hillsborough Superior Court into one in Manchester?

We have reserved a bill in the Legislature to seek consolidation of the Hills. North and South superior courts to be located in Manchester. Because the Legislature required that we speed up implementation of the Circuit Court, we thought it made sense to move the Superior Court back to Manchester. That is because the new Circuit Court will now be located at the Spring Street location in Nashua. In light of the fiscal realities, it made sense to move our operations to the new building in Manchester. We appreciate that the move would inconvenience some attorneys and litigants in Nashua, and if the fiscal picture were more promising, we might be in a better position to leave both locations open. By consolidating, we can implement some innovations by streamlining staff operations over time, reduce security costs, and achieve economies of scale.

We appreciate that the idea needs more vetting, so Chief Justice Dalianis decided to remove the provision from the budget and request a separate bill to be heard next session. At that time, we intend to demonstrate what the savings could be, and if the Legislature decides the idea is worthy, we will move forward, if not, we will be happy to keep both locations open. I know that the budget process can be challenging and good ideas face an uphill battle when constituencies affected are in opposition. It is important to keep in mind that there were approximately 35 jury trials in Nashua last year, and currently there are only two judges sitting, which I donít see changing in the near future.

You have been interested in innovations in the courts Ė jury questions, alternative sentencing, drug and mental health court projects. These types of things require more resources, not less. Are you discouraged about the prospect for continued innovation in the courts?

When I took this job, that is what I was hoping to do. And I am not going to give up the big ideas while we work our way through this crisis.

Innovations are still happening. In Rockingham, I am still involved in a drug court. And there we have also begun a different way of managing the criminal docket. Itís called HOPE, and it is based on a program in Hawaii.

We are piloting it in Rockingham County, with 20 probationers, and the same probation officer. We brought them all into court and told them: "You will be arrested for every violation, and go to court within 48 hours. You will be drug-tested three times a week. If you violate, the sanctions will be brief and certain Ė you will go to jail on the first violation."

HOPE provides tight supervision and every violation is a wake-up call. Under the current system, probationers are often not sanctioned on the first or second violations or flunked test, and then on the third or fourth time, after three or four months go by, they are sent to jail for three or six months.

Early results are that after the first or second violation, the probationers stop violating. Instead of many of them ending up in jail for weeks or months, they have had much less jail time.

We are going to present our data to Corrections Commissioner Wrenn. We believe this is a plan to that can save money and reduce crime. We also are looking for a federal grant to continue the project.

What about the drug courts and mental health courts. How can they continue when the require so many resources?

Yes, these specialty courts use a lot of resources, but we are finding that they are so successful in reducing jail days that the counties are beginning to pick up their funding. Thatís happening in Strafford County, where they are providing local funds to continue the drug court.

Last year, the Superior Court began a pilot project in Strafford and Carroll counties Ė the PAD project (proportional and automatic disclosure). Howís that going?

The people in those counties think it is working well, and the lawyers are beginning to appreciate it too. We would like to expand it by extending it into the Manchester courthouse.

A few weeks ago, a man set himself on fire in front of the courthouse in Keene. What impact did that have on people who work there? Do you have a comment on it?

That suicide in Keene was devastating. It was particularly devastating for the court staff to have this happen in public. The man was involved in a long, ongoing family case with much contention.

The lesson we take from that incident is that marital cases are very hard, and we in the courts try to handle them as sensitively and carefully as we can. In the end, we canít always control what happens. These cases are marked by unpredictability and emotion.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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